Britain’s electric dreams will never come true as China has a material advantage | John Naughton

In his book Electrifying: An Optimist’s Handbook for our clean energy future, Saul Griffith, American inventor, entrepreneur and engineer, proposes a plan to decarbonize the United States: electrify everything. From now on, every time people replace a vehicle, renovate a building or buy an appliance, they would have to buy electricity. Every new roof must have solar panels, all new homes must be energy efficient and must not contain gas stoves. All it takes for this to happen is a collective national effort comparable to the mobilization of the American economy for World War II. And it could be financed with the kind of low-cost, long-term loans reminiscent of the government-backed mortgages that created America’s postwar middle class. CQFD.

As I read Griffith’s captivating and optimistic book, a bad thought constantly comes to mind: HL Mencken’s observation: “To every complex problem there is a clear, simple, and wrong answer.” But Griffith is too smart to be caught in this particular net. There is, however, a serious difficulty with his grand plan and he goes by the abbreviation CRM.

It means “critical raw materials”. It turns out that an all-electric future won’t be possible without a secure supply of certain elements that we extract from the earth’s crust. And we find that there are quite a lot of these critical elements. A full call ranges from antimony to strontium to cobalt, lithium, magnesium, platinum, tantalum – not to mention other things this columnist until recently blissfully ignored.

When people started thinking seriously about a fully electrified future, only a limited number of these CRMs were considered “critical”. In 2011, EU think there could be 14. In 2014, this number had increased to 20. In 2017, it was 27. And since 2020, the number of CRMs is 30.

The EU has been concerned about it for at least a decade, but news of the problem appears to have been slow to reach London. The government, after all, has other important things on what might loosely be described as its mind. But an enthusiastic email from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recently arrived announcing that the report of a major CRM survey was to be released last Monday. And so it was, in the form of a 76-page pdf, filled with tables and graphs of all the descriptions.

The report, titled UK Criticality Assessment of Technology Critical Minerals and Metals, was commissioned from the British Geological Survey last November and is now available for public inspection. The objective of the survey was “to identify minerals that may be at risk of supply disruption and use this information to inform the development of mitigation strategies”.

The researchers identified “criticality” as having two dimensions: the likelihood of supply disruptions (S); and the economic vulnerability of the UK and its consumers to such disruptions (V). Of the 26 CRMs evaluated, 18 exceeded the criticality threshold on both axes. Those with the highest supply ratings were “rare earth elements” plus tellurium, gallium, germanium, and antimony. China is the leading producer of 16 of the RCMs studied. The other main producers were: South Africa for manganese, platinum and palladium; Chile for rhenium and lithium; Australia for lithium; Brazil for niobium; the United States for beryllium; Russia for palladium; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for tantalum.

For the UK, 18 of the CRMs represent both supply risks and significant vulnerabilities. As a result, the path to its carbon-free future appears to be rocky.

The EU analysis on his The CRM vulnerabilities came to broadly similar conclusions and led to a Action plan on critical raw materials, calling for open and global markets for raw materials. Given the importance of China in the CRM area, this seems as futile as demanding an open market for Ukrainian wheat just now. And what is strange is that the EU’s own document lays out the strategic problem with exemplary clarity. “Overreliance on single supplier countries makes Europe vulnerable.” Check. “Clean and digital technologies are highly dependent on critical raw materials.” Check. “The green and digital transitions will lead to a drastic increase in European demand for certain critical raw materials by 2050.” Check. So…

But there the document stops. It’s as if the logical conclusion is too painful to articulate. So let’s spell it. As Europe and the United States attempt to transition to a carbon-free, CRM-rich future, they will find themselves in a position of strategic dependence analogous to Europe’s current dependence on Russian gas. Except that from now on, it will be Xi Jinping who will take the reins. And if the British Geological Survey’s CRM report has any useful lesson for whoever is running the country now, it’s that the UK is in the same boat.

what i read

Natural selection
The lost art of looking at nature is a beautiful essay on David Attenborough by Rachel Riederer in CONTESTATION magazine.

Green spaces
Jeweler Nem Singh Geographies in transition on the Phenomenal World site examines why technology is geopolitical and offers an interesting take on the neocolonialism implicit in the Western search for a green future.

Lose face
The Ryder Review is a beautiful investigation by the Ada Lovelace Institute in which Matthew Ryder QC asks the pertinent question: facial recognition technology is toxic technology, so why isn’t it banned?

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